‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’
The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.
Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.
The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.
The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.
The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.
A powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.